Convocation 2001

Ithaca College, August 27, 2001

Thank you, Board of Trustees Chairman William Haines. Good morning, faculty, staff, students, trustees, and guests.

He hopped into the front seat of his father's Buick. . . . Despite a flicker of cold fear way deep inside, he felt confident. After all, he was Porter Osborne Jr. He was the last of his line, the bearer of the name, the hope of the future, and a light on the mountain. He was going off to college. (Ferrol Sams, The Whisper of the River, page 14)

Members of the class of 2005, welcome to Ithaca College. I bring you greetings from students, faculty, staff, trustees -- and more than 40,000 alumni, whose ranks you will join in four years.

The words I just quoted are from The Whisper of the River by Ferrol Sams, the story of Porter Osborne Jr. from rural Georgia and his adventures in college.

I remember vividly the first few weeks of my undergraduate days. I had this feeling that everyone else knew their way around campus, confident about meeting the new and substantial academic challenges. Many acted as if they had been there before. It did not take long for me to discover that appearances were deceiving, that others were as unfamiliar as I with their new surroundings and with the new academic expectations. Soon, keen interest in learning and excitement about all the possibilities that were out there overshadowed uncertainty and unfamiliarity. As you begin your life at Ithaca College, I hope that excitement will quickly overshadow uncertainty.

Each year as we welcome new students into our academic community, faculty and staff take this occasion to reflect on our roles as educators and to recall why each of us has chosen to be here. Students, you are here to learn and to develop. We, faculty and staff, are here to support you in that process. Regardless of the role each of us plays, we are all here for the same important reason -- to help you achieve your academic and personal goals. We promise you the opportunity for success and our commitment and encouragement to support you along the way. As you begin your studies at Ithaca College, we recommit to that responsibility and promise.

This is a time filled with great hope and a sense of new beginning. You are embarking on a journey, one with bumps, turns, and rainbows. You have a goal: to earn an undergraduate degree. However, it is the journey itself -- how you shape it and how you react to it -- that will affect the quality of your intellectual development and your overall college experience.

Relish this special time in your lives and the opportunity to be full-time learners -- a special time indeed. It is a luxury to take four years to learn and to reflect on the world of ideas and on your hopes and dreams. It is also life-changing.

Each year when I greet new students, I like to share some ideas about how to make your time at Ithaca College the best that it can be . . . how to be effective learners, effective community citizens. This year, while contemplating what to say to you, I read a book by Dr. Richard Light entitled Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. I highly recommend this book to all new students and to everyone else in the room.

Dr. Light of Harvard University led the Harvard Assessment Project for ten years. The book is the product of that extensive work. The research focused on how undergraduate students get off to a good start in college -- how they develop and maintain strategies that lead to effective learning and personal fulfillment. The four major research questions were these:

  1. Why do some undergraduates feel they are making the most of their years at college, while others are far less positive?
  2. What choices and attitudes distinguish these two groups?
  3. What can I tell these young people at the outset that will help them make the most of their time in college?
  4. What decisions [can] new students, as well as administrators and faculty members, make to facilitate the best possible undergraduate experience? (Richard Light, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, pages 1-2)

Light and his colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 1,600 undergraduate students. Although the project began at Harvard, colleagues from twenty-five other colleges and universities were involved from the outset. Light comments on the broad applicability of the findings when he states:

At every college I visit, whether highly selective or not, private or public, large or small, national or regional . . . I am struck by how much of what students on other campuses say is similar to what Harvard students say (11).

The research findings are numerous and, oftentimes, quite pragmatic. However, in order for this important piece of research to make a difference, students, faculty, and staff need to have common knowledge and understanding of these findings and work together on them. Today is a start in that direction.

In my remarks today, I will address these findings:

  • early, effective academic engagement
  • balancing academic work and other activities
  • the role of advising
  • the importance of writing
  • diversity and learning from differences

Early, effective academic engagement

The research found that group study is a very powerful tool for effective learning, whether or not it is formally part of the classroom activity or project. Students who put together their own study groups to discuss assignments, discuss ideas, and review difficult material found it to be a very effective strategy. Getting together to review ideas for a paper or to think through ideas for a class presentation is an example of how fellow students can be resources and support for one another.

I need to distinguish this from "doing others' work for them," which is not what students were talking about. Rather, the idea is to use each other as part of the learning process outside of class in order to enable you to do good course work.

Time management is another strategy for early and effective academic engagement. A student in the study said:

Things that worked for me in high school, I discovered, don't work for me in college. I was really unprepared for the amount of material that is presented here and the speed at which it is presented . . . . I wasn't checked every day . . . . I never learned to study this enormous amount of material in a systematic way . . . . I tended to do one subject for a big span of time and then neglect it for a week . . . . I'm pushing myself to spend a little bit of time every day on each subject (23-24).

Light commented, "When seniors are asked what advice they would offer new arrivals, this idea of managing time is a common response" (25).

There are no tricks here, no magic. However, we do know that in the transition from high school to college, the issue of time is one of the most noticeable changes -- how it is scheduled, the perception of "lots of free time," and the need for students to take more responsibility for managing and allocating this precious resource.

You will be in class for 15 to 20 hours per week. This can look like a very small time commitment. However, faculty expect you to do 2 to 3 hours of study for each hour of class time. When exams and papers are upon you, that demand increases. Beyond class time you want time for extracurricular activities; trips to the bookstore and the bursar's office, meals, time with friends, telephone calls or e-mails to home, and some sleep.

It is easy and commonplace to look at a college class schedule and say, "This is great: I have lots of time!" In one sense you do have lots of time -- unstructured time, not time without demands on it. I often wonder: What do first-year students do with that 50 minutes between two classes? It is fine to go and get a snack or hang out with friends, but these 50-minute periods can start to add up and all of a sudden you have lost the whole day.

In the words of a student in the Light study, "In a classroom situation, you're the only one who suffers if the work is not your best" (93).

And in the words of Porter Osborne's father: "If you'll make it a point not ever to get behind in your work I think that you'll find college is not too hard" (Sams, page 19).

Good advice from real life and from fiction: You need to figure out your own rhythms. The advice from the students interviewed and from all the experience in this room is that you need to manage your time in an active and thoughtful way in order to have a fulfilling experience here.

Selection of courses is also important for effective academic engagement. The research shows that one approach to the selection of courses can get students into trouble and negatively affect their academic engagement. I call it the "have to's" syndrome. It is the sense of drive that some students have to get their requirements "out of the way" and get on to the "good stuff" of learning. Students with this predisposition can get into academic difficulty.

Light says:

Clearly, a few students arrive at college each year with the belief that making the most of their experience here involves a sequence of steps. Step one: get all the requirements out of the way. Step two: choose a concentration or major. Step three: take advanced courses in the concentration, while saving electives, the "good stuff," for the junior and senior year (Light, page 39).

The structure of courses required in the major, electives and general education requirements vary across programs here. But the important message from this finding does apply across all programs. That is, an attitude of "getting this out of the way" does not lend itself to making you an intellectually engaged and active learner and it minimizes the importance of the courses themselves. In my experience, if you do not, early on, take courses with ideas that capture your interest and imagination, then you will not grow intellectually and you will likely be miserable to be around.

Yes, your four years will fly by; at the same time, you have the time to try things on and to explore. Don't approach this special time in your life with a "get it out of the way" attitude. This is a time to be open and expansive in your approach to learning -- not a time for blinders and a rush to the finish line.

Balancing academics and other activities

Light's research shows that "learning outside of classes, especially in residential settings and extracurricular activities, is vital" (8).

This finding corroborates research from other sources that indicates that students who have a successful and positive undergraduate experience typically learn how to balance academic interests with other activities. One student quoted in the Light study gives this advice to new students: "Above all, I urge them to get involved in depth in at least one activity other than courses" (26).

These non-classroom activities may reflect academic interests or be totally separate. Whatever their nature for any given student, these activities provide another opportunity for growth and development, as well as fun. The goal here is to participate in the many dimensions of college life, selecting activities that appeal to you and that contribute to your overall goals for your own undergraduate experience.

Balancing academics with other activities is critical to overall satisfaction with college life:

Substantial commitment to one or two activities other than course work -- for as much as 20 hours per week -- has little or no relationship to grades. But such commitments do have a strong relationship to overall satisfaction with college life. More involvement is strongly correlated with higher satisfaction (26).

Examples of such participation include student clubs and organizations, athletics and recreational sports, volunteer work, and paid work on or off campus. You are surrounded by these opportunities here.

The role of advising

Students in the Light project spoke of the importance of advising. Being assigned an academic adviser is another significant change from the high school environment. It is critical that you take advantage of this relationship. Your adviser is not a guidance counselor, nor is he or she like an assistant principal. Rather, your adviser is your guide: someone who knows the academic world very well, who knows much about learning and teaching, about research, and about effective study and learning strategies. Your advisers also have a keen interest in seeing that your student experience becomes all that it can be for you. They do not do things with for you but with you. In order to get off to a good start, I advise you to get to know them: don't avoid them; don't check in only at pre-registration time or when you are in an academic crisis. Your advisers want to get to know you. Talk with them about ideas, tell them about yourself and your interests, and lay the foundation for a relationship that will grow in importance over your time here. They will work with you to make "wise and informed choices" (86).

Now, some students might not like to hear about the next finding. But some may, and I expect that most faculty will.

The importance of writing

"Of all the skills students say they want to strengthen, writing is mentioned three times more than any others" (54).

Light goes on to explain that students know they will be asked to write an enormous amount at college and expect this reality to continue after graduation. What surprised Light and his colleagues was the extent to which writing had a profound impact on students' engagement in any given course. Students were asked about the courses they were taking -- or had taken -- and asked about total time commitment, intellectual challenge and degree of personal engagement, and amount of writing required for each course. In Light's words:

The results are stunning. The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students' level of engagement -- whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students' level of interest in it -- is stronger than the relationship between the students' engagement and any other course characteristic (55).

The findings address ways to improve student writing, and the role of group study surfaced once again. In this context, some students met "whenever any of them had a substantial writing assignment and wanted to discuss it" (61). The groups had two rules: the student who wanted help had to have prepared at least a second draft, and the other students could not do "any word-by-word editing and fixing" (61).

Now the good news for the new students in the audience -- some of whom are probably saying, "Why are you telling the faculty all this data about the importance of writing?" -- is that the majority of the students interviewed agreed that the junior and senior years are the best times to emphasize writing in course work.

Diversity and learning from differences

The final dimension I want to address is "diversity" and "learning from differences."

James Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth College, wrote that our challenge is "an educational one: to foster learning among students from diverse backgrounds by encouraging discourse, tolerance, civility and engagement" (James Freedman, Idealism and Liberal Education, page 67).

Light's findings support the fact that students today are ready and eager for Freedman's challenge. Students believe that colleges send very clear and consistent messages that living with people from different backgrounds is a "standard, important, and . . . enjoyable aspect" of coming to college (43). Interacting with others from different backgrounds -- racial, ethnic, political, religious, geographic, and economic -- is what students expect. The findings also show that "students expect to meet people who will disagree with them" (Light, page 132).

You are now members of an intellectual community. In this community we foster dialogue that stretches our thinking and expands our understanding and perspective. We will challenge you to engage in discourse about ideas and points of view that you do not espouse, ask you to put yourselves in the shoes/minds of others who have very different life experiences and belief systems. These differences will reveal themselves in many arenas -- from the classroom to living, working and playing together.

We know that after you leave Ithaca College you will live and work in a diverse nation and world. What you learn from your experiences with "difference" here will be critical to the life you lead after you graduate. The key distinction between life at Ithaca College and life thereafter -- and the opportunity your time here presents -- is that we are a purposeful community. We are all here by choice. No one -- faculty, staff nor student -- has to be here. Any of us can walk away at any time. A community that comes together on purpose has what Light calls "shared assumptions" that provide the foundation or precondition for diversity to enhance learning, inside and outside the classroom (141).

New students, along with the rest of us, likely share some of the assumptions that Light mentions:

  • you all value a good education;
  • you worked hard to get here;
  • you expect to have your thinking challenged in class;
  • you expect to contribute in class (141).

An academic community is a place where ideas are paramount, where disagreement is OK, if not expected, and a place where civility and respect are part of the culture.

At Ithaca College, we have a shared expectation that we will learn from one another. We pride ourselves in being open-minded and living in a world of ideas and discovery of knowledge. Day in, day out we will have many informal interactions with one another. However, as a purposeful community, we also have the opportunity to create programs and forums where we can explore difference in meaningful ways.

Students in the study stressed the need for a "tone of good will" to be present in order to build on diversity as an enhancement to learning. This tone must be present in the perspectives of students and other members of the campus as well. Light says:

The perspective is not liberal or conservative. It is just an open-mindedness. It is an eagerness to meet and engage with people who look different from oneself and come from different backgrounds. The big point is that this variation in backgrounds will often lead to different conversations, different questions, and different debates [from what would occur in a totally homogeneous community] (135).

These preconditions and this "tone of good will" are present here. We know that we all benefit from the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives we collectively represent and from the programs that expand our horizons about difference. Enhancing and sustaining this "tone of good will" are our collective responsibility.

Finally, I want to share a brief example of bringing diverse perspectives to campus that is simple and yet so powerful in reminding us all of the differences that weave throughout our lives and that affect our every interaction with one another. It is what we read and what we think is important to read. Students in the study were asked to identify "books 'of the modem era' they considered 'especially important'" and to identify writers they thought other students should read (152). This simple exercise revealed significant differences among groups:

  • Approximately one-third of all women named Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique as a work they considered especially important . . . . Not a single man mentioned this book (152).
  • Many African-American students mentioned books by Alice Walker and Nathan McCall. Not a single student who was not African American, zero out of 90 students, mentioned either of these two authors (153).
  • About one-quarter of Jewish students brought up various stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Not a single non-Jewish student mentioned any of Singer's works as especially important (153).
  • Several Muslim students named Naguib Mahfouz as the most important writer of modern times. Not a single non-Muslim student mentioned this writer (153).
  • Several Asian-American students brought up the works of Lu Hsun as especially important to them.... Not a single student other than Asian Americans mentioned this author (153-154).
  • "Latino students presented two authors as especially important" -- Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes -- and one mentioned discussions he had had with Anglo students who were unfamiliar with Fuentes's works (154-155).

This simple exercise about favorite and/or important authors shows, in Light's words, "compelling evidence that students from different backgrounds indeed bring different tastes and preferences to the campus table" (155). These tastes and preferences affect our everyday interactions, perspectives, and choices. Our collective challenge is to grow in our understanding of difference and our appreciation for how diversity enhances learning for all members of the college community.

Students in the study were clear that, in settings like this, I should convey to new students that you "have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience ... a new set of people with new ideas that may challenge [your] own" (196).

You will have numerous opportunities here to interact with those whose backgrounds and ideas differ from yours. Take advantage of these: participate in programs sponsored by the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity; the Office of Multicultural Affairs; the [Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgendered] LGBT resource center; and the religious communities on campus. Find out about our exciting partnership with Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City, explore what goes on in the Office of International Programs, schedule at least one international experience into your program, and explore other opportunities right here in the City and Town of Ithaca.

The findings from the Harvard Assessment Project include many other interesting ideas, but we do not have time today to cover them all. I hope that you will find some of this advice helpful as you begin your academic journey here, and I also hope that I have enticed you into reading the book and actively using it as part of your life at Ithaca College.

Once again, welcome to Ithaca College. We are delighted that you have chosen to study here, and we look forward to getting to know you. In closing:

  • Get excited about ideas and about learning. Experience times when you can echo the words of William Shakespeare: "0, this learning! What a thing it is."
  • Develop good habits of mind that will enable you to move effectively from one course to another and across disciplines -- providing you the foundation necessary to carry a commitment to learning and inquiry throughout your life.
  • And finally, heed the advice of several graduating seniors in Dr. Light's research study, who stressed the importance "of the simple principle of bringing good will to all personal encounters" (185).

Cherish your time here -- and enjoy yourselves in the process, because fun is the last important ingredient for a good experience at Ithaca College.

Have a good year, one and all.